When you think about seafaring in the 17th century, what do you see? Pirate ships? Wealthy merchants? Perhaps the beautiful and speedy vessels of the British Navy? Whatever you’re thinking, there’s probably a certain romanticism that you’re attributing to this period – salt on your skin, wind in your hair, and the call of adventure from beyond the horizon.
Unfortunately, this period was also filled with incredible danger. Voyages on most ships took months, and this time was spent entirely isolated from the rest of the world, with no way to get supplies or call for help if something went wrong.
The history of seafaring is littered with terrible stories of accidents, mutinies, and mysterious tragedies like the abandonment of the Mary Celeste.
In December 1872, an American merchant brigantine called the Mary Celeste was found floating somewhere between the Azores Islands and the coast of Portugal. Though she was only mildly disheveled, none of the ship’s ten known occupants were aboard, and none of them were ever heard from again.
To this day, no one knows what happened to them.
History of the Ship
The ship that would eventually be abandoned in 1872 was built on Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. She was originally launched under British registration as Amazon in 1861. She was transferred to American ownership in 1868 following a wreck and was newly registered as Mary Celeste upon the completion of her repairs.
Her voyages were usually uneventful, but that would change in 1872.
The Fateful Voyage
This voyage was set to be captained by a man named Benjamin Briggs, who had partial ownership of the vessel. He was to be accompanied by his wife, Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter Sophia. The couple left their young son, Arthur, with Brigg’s mother because the lad was attending school.
There were seven additional crew members on this journey: first mate Albert G. Richardson, second mate Andrew Gillings, steward Edward William Head, and four general seamen named Arian Martens, Gottlieb Goudschaal, and brothers Volkert and Boz Lorenzen.
These men were considered to be trustworthy by Briggs. Richardson had sailed with him before, Head had gotten married shortly before the voyage and was presumably supporting a young wife, and the four general seamen were described as “peaceable and first-class sailors” in a testimonial written after their disappearance.
The ship was sailing for Genoa, Italy with 1701 barrels of denatured alcohol as their cargo. They left Pier 50 on the East River in New York City on November 5, 1872 – however, they only made it as far as New York Harbor before Briggs decided to wait for better weather conditions and dropped anchor just off Staten Island. They finally left the harbor on November 7, 1872.
Eight days later, a Canadian merchant ship called the Dei Gratia left Hoboken, New Jersey with a cargo of petroleum that was also destined for Genoa. The ship followed the same general route that the Mary Celeste was, and all was well until December 4.
Captain David Morehouse came on deck and his helmsman immediately reported that he’d seen a vessel about six miles from them, heading in their direction in an erratic manner. They noted that her sails were positioned strangely and surmised that something was wrong.
Discovery of the Mary Celeste
As the two ships got closer to one another, Morehouse noted that there was no one on the deck of the other ship, nor could he get anyone to reply to his signals. He sent his first and second mates in a ship’s boat to investigate. They established that the ship was the Mary Celeste from the name on her stern; when they climbed aboard, they found that she had been completely deserted.
Her sails were only partially set and were in bad condition with damage to a significant portion of the rigging. The main hatch was covered, but the fore and lazarette hatches were open, their covers lying alongside them.
The single lifeboat was missing, and the binnacle housing the ship’s compass had been broken and shifted from its proper position. There was about 3.5 ft of water in the hold, which was significant, but not terribly alarming for a ship of that size. A makeshift tool for measuring the water in the hold was found on the deck.
The first mate noted that the cabins were messy, and damp from water that had seeped in from doorways and skylights, but otherwise in reasonable order. Down in the galley, equipment was neatly stored, and while there was no food prepared, there were plenty of provisions in the storeroom.
The last entry in the ship’s log was dated November 25 at 8am, nine days earlier. It recorded her position as 37°01′N 25°01′W, just off Santa Maria Island – nearly 400 nautical miles from the point that she was intercepted by the Dei Gratia.
In the captain’s cabin, it was noted that there were personal items, including a sword in a sheath that was found under the bed, but the bulk of the ship’s papers were missing, as well as instruments used for navigation. All of the evidence seemed to indicate that the ship’s ten occupants had departed the ship in an orderly manner by means of the lifeboat, but there was no indication as to why they would have felt the need to abandon the mostly seaworthy ship.
The first mate returned to the Dei Gratia and reported their findings to Captain Morehouse, who decided to bring the ship into Gibraltar – which was 600 nautical miles from their position. It’s assumed that he did this because he expected to receive a substantial reward for her salvage under maritime law.
He divided his eight-man crew between the vessels, sending his first mate and two experienced sailors to manage the Mary Celeste while he and four others continued to sail the Dei Gratia. With both ships woefully undermanned, their progress was slow, but they docked the Mary Celeste on December 13.
The Salvage Hearings
The ship was immediately taken into custody of the vice admiralty, who intended to prepare for salvage hearings to determine exactly what award Morehouse and his crew were entitled to. The hearings began on December 17 and were presided over by Frederick Solly-Flood, Gibraltar’s Attorney General and Advocate-General and Proctor for the Queen in Her Office of Admiralty.
The testimonies of Morehouse’s first and second mates convinced him beyond all doubt that a crime had been committed in the case of the Mary Celeste.
Flood ordered that the ship be examined on December 23, and this inspection was carried out by a man named John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping. He noticed marks that he inferenced to be cuts from a sharp instrument on each side of the bow and discovered that the sword found underneath the captain’s bed had traces of a substance that could possibly be blood.
He eventually emphasized that the ship did not appear to have run into bad weather, citing that he’d found a vial of sewing machine oil upright. He did not acknowledge that this vial could have been replaced in its spot by a member of the Dei Gratia’s crew since the ship’s abandonment.
A diver who had been hired to inspect the hull reported that there were no signs that it had been involved in a collision with an object or run aground. Another inspection conducted by a group of captains from the Royal Navy seemed to confirm Austin’s suspicions that the cuts on the bow had been created by a weapon, and reported finding stains on one of the rails that they believed to be blood, as well as a deep gouge that could have been caused by an axe.
All of these findings only strengthened Flood’s conclusion that deliberate wrongdoing had caused the ship’s abandonment, rather than any sort of accident or natural disaster.
On January 15, James Winchester, the Mary Celeste’s primary owner, arrived in Gibraltar to enquire when the ship would be released so he could have a crew deliver its cargo. For some unknown reason, Flood demanded a surety from Winchester in the sum of $15,000, which Winchester did not have.
He slowly became aware that Flood was of the opinion that he had deliberately hired crewmen that would kill Briggs and his officers as part of some twisted conspiracy. Winchester repeatedly testified to Brigg’s high character and was adamant that the man would not have abandoned the ship unless there were some form of extreme circumstances.
On January 22, 1873, Flood sent the collected reports to the Board of Trade in London, adding his own personal narrative: the crew had gotten into the cargo – completely ignoring the fact that denatured alcohol is essentially poison, and anyone who drank it could potentially have gone blind – and murdered the Briggs family and the ship’s other officers in some form of drunken frenzy.
In his opinion, they had then cut the bows to make it look like the ship had suffered a collision and fled in the lifeboat towards an unknown fate. Despite this narrative, he also thought that Morehouse and the rest of the Dei Gratia’s crew were hiding something – he thought that the Mary Celeste must have been found in a more easterly location, and that they had doctored the ship’s log to cover that up because he could not accept that it could have drifted so far whilst unmanned.
Flood’s outlandish theory began to crumble when a scientific analysis of the stains on the sword and other spots on the ship proved that they were not blood. Additionally, a report commissioned by the American consul in Gibraltar brought in a differing opinion about the marks on the ship’s bow – Captain Shufledt of the US Navy wrote that he believed that the marks were not deliberate but resulted from the natural strain of the waves on the ship’s timbers.
With his suspicions starting to be disproved, Flood released Mary Celeste on February 25, despite his reluctance. Two weeks later, she returned to her original route under the leadership of Captain George Blatchford. The salvage payment for the crew of the Dei Gratia was announced as £1,700 – this was far lower than what is generally expected of a salvage payment, which is supposed to be about half of a recovered vessel’s value, plus the value of whatever cargo was aboard.
Additionally, there was a certain level of hazard to her recovery, meaning that the award should have been at least two or three times larger than that sum. The presiding official openly stated that the award was that low because Morehouse and his men were still under heavy suspicion of wrongdoing by the courts.
Aside from Flood’s – mostly ridiculous – theory about the crew drunkenly murdering the captain and officers, there are several theories about why the occupants would have abandoned the ship. Multiple other foul play scenarios were considered, including insurance fraud on the part of James Winchester – this was fueled by newspaper reports that the Mary Celeste had been massively over-insured, though Winchester was able to refute these allegations.
In 1931, an article published in The Quarterly Review suggested that Captain David Morehouse was to blame; author Paul Begg thought that the Dei Gratia could have lain in wait before luring Briggs and the others onto his own ship, killing them there.
This theory blatantly ignores the fact that the Dei Gratia left the US eight days after Mary Celeste, and there was no feasible way for them to have caught up with her. Yet another theory thinks that Briggs and Morehouse plotted a conspiracy to share the salvage proceeds – most rebuttals of this theory note that there was no recorded friendship between the captains.
Additionally, if Briggs truly had meant to disappear, why had he left his son behind?
There are also multiple theories that blame an attack by different flavors of pirates, though there is no concrete evidence to support this, considering that very few items were missing from the ship. Slightly more plausible theories state that the transfer of the ten occupants from the ship into the lifeboat could have been some form of temporary safety measure.
Some extrapolated from the reports of the state of the rigging that the lifeboat could have initially been attached to the ship, allowing the passengers to return when whatever danger had passed. If that line had somehow become severed, the ship and lifeboat could have drifted apart.
Oppositions to this theory cite the blatant illogical nature of attaching a lifeboat to a ship that the crew thought was, say, about to explode, or actively sinking. Others state that Briggs was an experienced captain who was unlikely to panic and abandon the ship unless it was entirely necessary.
Still other theories include some sort of phenomena such as a waterspout striking the ship, the appearance of some sort of iceberg, or a sudden undersea earthquake. The current theory – formed in 2007 by those working on a documentary called The True Story of the Mary Celeste – is that the ship was abandoned because her pump had become congested and thus malfunctioned.
A detail that was overlooked by the salvage court is that the ship’s pump was found dismantled on the deck, indicating that the crew could have been trying to fix it. Before this journey, the Mary Celeste had been used to transport coal, and it’s possible that coal dust had gotten into the pump and clogged it up.
It’s thought that, due to a faulty chronometer, Briggs could have assumed that they were closer to Santa Maria than they were, and ordered abandonment thinking that they could make it safely to shore.
In the decades after the ship’s discovery, the story was diluted and embellished by multiple sources, elevating the mystery to the status of legend.
One of the most influential “retellings” of the story is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle that appeared in Cornhill Magazine in January 1884. It’s entitled J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, and, despite the fact that it bore only a ghost of a resemblance to the facts, it intrigued the US Consul in Gibraltar enough for him to start enquiring if any of those details were true.
The Mary Celeste herself became popular after she returned from Genoa due to her spooky new reputation; she was sold at a considerable loss in 1874. Ten years of various voyages later, she became the subject of attempted insurance fraud by her captain, Gilman C. Parker. He deliberately ran her aground on a reef near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The incident tore out her bottom and wrecked her beyond all repair, spelling the end of her sailing career. Parker and his crew were eventually tried for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.
The tale of her inexplicable abandonment in 1872 has never been forgotten and continues to fascinate historians and armchair detectives alike. Nowadays, she’s known as a notorious ghost ship, the facts of the case entangled with almost 150 years of legends and tall tales. The story has inspired countless films, novels, books, and other media – there are even references to the story in the second season of BBC’s Doctor Who.
No evidence of the lost crew has ever been found, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever truly know what made them abandon the ship. They and the Mary Celeste are honored by a monument on Spencer’s Island where she was built.